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A fast-paced adventure about teens who turn detectives

'Saira Zariwala is Afraid' is set in Mumbai, and with its mix of humour, mystery and horror, makes for a perfect read for urban teenagers

It all starts when Saira gets her own phone. What she’s not so thrilled about is that most of the messages that arrive on it are for somebody called Akaash. Photo: courtesy HarperCollins Publishers
It all starts when Saira gets her own phone. What she’s not so thrilled about is that most of the messages that arrive on it are for somebody called Akaash. Photo: courtesy HarperCollins Publishers

The first thing I did after getting my new phone number was call Tia.

Tia is my BFF. (Except when Amara is my BFF. And except for the times when the two of them are BFFs and are busy leaving me out. It’s complicated.)

Anyway, at the moment Tia is my BFF, so I called Tia.

‘Ya?’ she answered.

‘It’s me,’ I squeaked, all excited.

‘Who?’ she asked in a bored-to-death voice.

‘Saira,’ I crowed. ‘I’ve finally got a phone and a number and everything. This is my new number. Can you add me to all the groups? The class chat? The girls’ chat? The English project chat?’

‘OK,’ Tia agreed.

‘Great,’ I answered. ‘You can’t imagine how thrilled I am.’

Tia scoffed. ‘I mean, you’ve finally joined the modern world. I can’t understand how you’ve survived without Instagram for all these years.’

Tia always acts like I’ve been raised by wolves in a mountain cave without electricity or wifi. Although she knows jolly well that I’ve been raised by strict-but-otherwise-normalish parents in the heart of Mumbai.

After all, Tia and I have known each other for 11 whole years. We’ve been sometimes best friends, sometimes frenemies for about 10 of them.

I would have liked to chat some more with Tia. There’s something special about talking on your very own, shiny new phone rather than on the crackly landline in a corridor teeming with potential eavesdroppers. A bit like wearing a camisole from Forever 21, rather than from the chaddi-banyan shop at Dadar TT. It just makes you feel you’ve made it.

The problem, though, is that Tia’s had a phone for like a hundred years. She really can’t understand my excitement.

I wondered for a bit if I should call Amara or Shiv. But Amara was probably in her tennis class. And Shiv would be at Hindi tuitions or Fitness or something, so I sent them WhatsApp messages instead.

After that, I got down to organizing my display picture. Somehow, I’d assumed that this would take about as long as cooking a packet of Maggi two-minute noodles. Turns out it was much more like baking a seven-layer cake.

First, I had to choose what to wear. Striped blue top or tight green T-shirt or black school sweatshirt with the fluorescent pink writing.

Second, there were all those questions to sort out. Should I smile or stare soulfully into the distance? Tie my hair into a bouncy ponytail or go for the messy bed-head look? Should the picture be in colour or should I attempt one of those moody, black-and-white ones?

I needed help. Like urgently. I could have asked Tia, but Google seemed the less bossy option. So I went online and found a very helpful article called ‘How to Create a Good Display Picture in Seven Easy Steps’. (It’s all about the lighting and the pose apparently. And the confidence reflected by your smile.)

Third, I practiced smiling confidently. It was way tougher than you think.

I took a break when my cheeks started creaking and revived my flagging spirits with a handful of chocolate-covered raisins. Then I went back to the mirror and my spirits flagged all over again.

The thing is that, even on a good, lipstick-and-blow-dry day, I look about 11 and 1/4th years old. I am short for my age. My cheeks are chubby for any age. And my hair is the flyaway kind that will not cooperate with any style or gel or mousse. When people are being kind, they say I’m ‘petite and cute’. But while that’s fine if you’re Tinkerbell or a stuffed rabbit, it’s hardly the look of choice for a teenager. (Especially a teenager who’s vying for the affections of ‘SS’ of Grade 10.)

Fourth, I finally got down to business. I took half a million pictures of myself.

Fifth, I deleted them all.

Sixth, I sat around wishing I looked like Tia or Amara. Or, if I was wishing anyway, that I looked like Manvi Mehta. All pouty pink lips, long legs and slanted cat eyes.

(In case you’ve spent the lasts six months on Saturn, Manvi Mehta is the new girl about town. She acted the part of a blind college student with psychic powers in her first Hindi movie. The movie was a mega-hit and now Manvi Mehta is on the cover of every single magazine and invited to every single glamorous party in Mumbai. And she’s not even that great at acting.)

After brooding for a bit, I returned to the strenuous, face-tormenting business of taking selfies. Ouch.

I was most relieved when I got to the seventh and final stage. I chose a picture in which I was smiling in a mysterious-but-confident way. (At least I hoped I was.)

My hair was messy in a pop star way. (Again, I hoped it was.) I was wearing my school sweatshirt. (The sweatshirt is black and has ‘The Lighthouse School, Worli’ written in pink swirls. It’s the only cool thing our school has ever done. Our school uniforms look like sacks of onions – only blobbier. If you don’t believe me, take a look at our class photo. We look as though we’re waiting to be tossed onto a truck, driven down a highway and then unloaded at Crawford Market.)

Once the display picture was done, I uploaded it. Then I needed a clever WhatsApp status.

I eventually went with ‘Cool as the cucumber ice cream at Kooky’. (Kooky is like the official-unofficial café of our school. It’s just a five-minute stroll from The Lighthouse. Siddharth Sen from Grade 10 has been spotted there often. I go whenever I can – not just to spot him but also because the cakes and ice creams are awesome.)

Next, I created an Instagram account and began to follow two toothless babies, a bunch of pop stars and a very cute dog with floppy ears and dotted hair ribbons. And Tia and Amara and Shiv, of course. Siddharth Sen of Grade 10 is not on Instagram. (☹)

Then I was done. All I had to do was wait for my phone to ring. Or to ting.

I had almost finished my maths homework when the phone obliged.

Finally. I grabbed it, checked the message and snorted. My first ever message, and it wasn’t even addressed to me. It said, ‘Akaash, where are you?’

Excerpted with permission from 'Saira Zariwala is Afraid' authored by Shabnam Minwalla and published by HarperCollins Publishers India

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